We can ignore even pleasure,
But pain insists upon being attended to.
God whispers to us in our pleasures,
But shouts in our pains.
It is His megaphone to rouse
a deaf world.
And so, this is Christmas. For the weak and the strong. The rich and poor ones. The black and the white. Heaven’s door opens wide. The promises’ fulfillment lies asleep in Mary’s arms.
Christmas 2020. Sure doesn’t feel like much like a holiday. To the new folks at Evergreen, this is my annual Christmas letter. Yup, you get one of these each year. Evergreen, like our country, is a secular organization with Christian influences. As I write this letter, I am sensitive that employees may have world views beyond the Christian one. I do not wish to offend. Still, this holiday is Christmas, a celebration of Jesus’ birth. We’ve never needed to understand it’s meaning more.
Why don’t you join the conversation? You have stories I need to hear.
"You`re at peace, son. There's a big difference."
"Which would be what?”
"If you're still and if you don't hope too much, peace will come to you. It's a grace. But you have to choose happiness.”
"It`s that easy, is it? Just choose?”
"Making the decision to choose isn't always easy.”
"We sometimes take refuge in misery, a strange kind of comfort.”
"But no matter what happens in life, happiness is there for us, waiting to be embraced.”
If happiness wants to hug me, I’m ready. It’s been a tough year. Could there really be a joy as deep as the sorrow? When you think you’ve lost everything, you find you can always lose a little more. The COVID pandemic, forest fires with their massive destruction, personal losses, political division, daily riots fueled by visceral hatred, closed schools, and stressed family dynamics have taken a toll.
Theologians tell us that this is a fallen world, that Adam and Eve broke it when they fell from grace. Maybe you’re not a believer, but if you’re honest, you’ll have to agree that something is wrong with this place. Senseless violence, corrupting envy, greed, blind hatred, and willful ignorance seem to be proof that Earth has gone haywire; but so is the absurdity that we see everywhere. The people of a broken world, off the rails and wobbling trackless on their journeys to oblivion or meaning, are frequently going to be foolish, sometimes in entertaining ways.
The coronavirus is so called because it visibly resembles a crown. A crown is a symbol of power and authority - and this virus certainly has demonstrated its power over humans. So small, invisible to the naked eye, yet it changed human behavior in measures we could not have imagined. Indeed, it brought the entire world face to face with its vulnerability.
The corona shows us just how deep the break between creature and Creator. Earth is God’s creation, not ours. We are not its owner, although so many assume, we are. Most of us have made a mess of our own lives and even those of others; to say nothing about what we have done to the planet. Still we imagine we are in charge.
Perhaps what is most perplexing, is that it is so easy to forget that humans, you and I, are mortal. Despite all the evidence this is true, we pretend it is not. The coronavirus is demolishing, for anyone paying attention, the illusion that we can build perfection on earth. In a fractured world, pain and suffering are inevitable. We feel that now.
G. K Chesterton said that lack of meaning does not come from being weary of pain; rather meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure. If this is so, we should be knee deep in meaning.
"What`s wrong with humanity?"
"The correct question has three equal parts.”
“What`s wrong with humanity?”
“Then what`s wrong with nature, with its poison plants, predatory animals, earthquakes, and floods?”
“And last … what`s wrong with cosmic time, as we know it, which steals everything from us?"
"Those three questions have the same answer”
"It`s no good if I just give it to you. You'll resist it- and waste years of your life looking for an answer that pleases you more. When you arrive at it on your own, however, you'll be convinced by it.”
Despite that warning, and without you asking, please allow me to share some meaning I have found from painful dark in my life.
Learning to Forgive
It happened when my father was 6 years old and his little brother age 3. The boys were alone in the house, just having fun. There was a shotgun in the corner. My dad picked it up, playfully pointing it at his younger brother. The thunder rocked the small bedroom. He stared in horror through the clearing smoke upon the shattered visage of what remained of little brother.
In the 1920’s you didn’t do therapy. You just went on. For Dad, his childhood was over. It took away his words. He never - ever - talked about it.
Dad spent 5 years in the infantry during World War II. Stationed in the South Pacific, his company invaded one island after another. The fighting was brutal, losses massive. In his latter days, he told me that none of those combat experiences came close to what he felt on that fateful day at age 6.
I was high school age when I first heard the story. Our family was at an evening meeting at our rural conservative church. I was zoned out. I spent a lot of time in that building zoned out. Eternity for me was the time until we were dismissed. My father’s voice broke through the fog. I was startled because it didn’t sound like my father. My father did not show emotion. But his voice was shaky and then became tears. Tears I had never seen.
Dad recounted that he had done something he could never be forgiven of. He did not believe heaven was a possibility for him. Among the reassurances of his fellow parishioners, Dad just shut down. He clearly wasn’t buying their comfort.
When we got home that night, he told me the story. Every word was tortured, and I could not ask follow-up questions for fear of prolonging his pain.
Dad lived to be nearly 102 years old. He needed all that time to come to a place where he could tell me he believed God had forgiven him. In his last months, while visiting him in his bedroom, I noticed a photo of a small boy on his headboard whom I did not recognize. I looked at the name on the back. It was him. Little brother. Never forgotten.
When Dad passed, we removed his wedding ring he had worn over 70 years. It was nearly worn through. So thin. So fragile. So strong. I had it encased in new metal and wear it now on my right hand. I need to have contact with both the love and the resiliency it symbolizes.
Over the centuries, man has created countless depictions of the hereafter; few if any show the departed soul alone. Despite the ways we isolate ourselves on earth, in our final bliss, we are always with someone: The Lord, Jesus, saints, angels, loved ones. A solitary afterlife seems unimaginably grim.
Why do we wait?
“All death matters?”
“Only to the living”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“No one is born into this world with anger”
“When we die, the soul is freed from it”
“How we deal with injustice in this time defines us”
“To know grief, we must be in the river of time”
“There is no grief, no hate before or after time
which is all the consolation we should need.”
Beauty Springing from Ashes
People looking for meaning or happiness in a political movement will not find it.
When social forces press for the rejection of age-old Truth, then those who reject it will seek meaning in their own truth These truths will rarely be Truth at all; they will be only collections of personal preferences and prejudices.
The less depth a belief system has, the greater the fervency with which its adherents embrace it. The most vociferous, the most fanatical are those whose cobbled faith is founded on the shakiest grounds. But fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.
I have found few human problems that have been solved by politics. The uniqueness of every soul is not a theme that our current culture, obsessed with group identities, cares to assert.
Hate is a problem of the human heart and will flourish in any system.
For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we need to awaken. This dream is that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.
Frank Moore is 97. Last September his unique log home he personally built overlooking the famous fly-fishing stretch of the North Umpqua River, which he shared and loved with Jeanne, his cherished wife of 77 years, burned to the ground.
He wasn’t alone. Not even close. On that same day, the Archie Creek Wildfire raced down the North Umpqua River, burning over 100,000 acres and 109 homes. The whole section of the Umpqua below Steamboat Inn was transformed in a day into a blackened hellscape. The ancient cliffs towering over the exquisitely clear lava-rock runs and rapids stand silent, sentinel to the devastation.
Frank is an exceptional man. Fire doesn’t care. One of the last surviving members of the D-Day Invasion, Frank served in the 453rd automatic weapons battalion of the Army Corps 83rd Infantry Division in World War II. He was part of a group of young men who not only landed on the beaches, but fought all the way to the Battle of the Bulge to help end the war in the European Theatre
Frank remains a legend among steelhead and trout fly fishing anglers. He has been a powerful advocate for the North Umpqua river and its wild resources. Jeanne was a brilliant botanist who loved local wildflowers and organized the wildflower show every spring in Glide.
About one year ago, I was privileged to visit and chat with Frank Moore at the lodgepole cabin he had built himself high above his beloved North Umpqua. It felt like home. From the moment I arrived, everything I saw and smelled proclaimed home. It was filled with photos of a life richly lived, old creels and fly rods, carvings, awards and citations, the fragrance of woodsmoke and baking bread, and Jeanne’s walls of botanical books. Conversation was easy and real with coffee around the kitchen table. I was just visiting. But I felt like I belonged. This was what home should be.
Frank’s public comment after the fire was typical of the character that carried him this far, “As long as we have each other, we can always start over.”
Frank’s house had been destroyed. His home had not.
So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re doing things, they think are important. They’re chasing the wrong things. What Frank understood was the way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourselves to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.
Frank also understood the importance of home. There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. And home was wherever Jeanne was.
Love Always Wins
Love comes when you least expect it, Love comes when you need it most. Love comes when you are ready to receive it or can no longer deny it.
I met Kathy when both of us were in training at Oregon Health Sciences University. Desperate for a break from studies, I went to the Activities Center to play basketball. All of the courts were being used for volleyball. I turned to leave. Several of my fellow medical students cajoled me to stay. I did.
Kathy ended up right across the net from me and we began to talk. She was struggling in anatomy and physiology. Our first date was an introduction to my cadaver “Dead Ernest”. We then sat for hours on the deck of the basic science balcony overlooking a forested landscape of color. Just talking.
I love fall. It’s all about change. The bright colors evolving daily before our eyes. Fall has the power to make even death attractive. That it is both beautiful and transient is part of the magic. Constantly changing. What is next is predictable, yet wondrous, when it happens to you. It was happening to me. That you know it won’t last just focuses us even more to enjoy the moment. My moment was perfect. And I knew what was happening to me would not fade with the fall.
Do you know what causes wind? High pressure meeting low pressure. Warm meeting cold. Change. Change causes wind. And the bigger the change, the stronger the wind blows. This wind brings energy; energy necessary for life.
There was a lot of energy in the air that fall evening. Energy a lonely medical student desperately needed. I had no idea how badly I needed it.
How passionately we love everything that cannot last: the dazzling crystallory of winter, the spring in bloom, the fragile flight of butterflies, crimson sunsets, a kiss, and life.
How deeply we long for what will last.
We fear loneliness. But loneliness itself does not exist. It has no form. It is merely a shadow that fall over us. And just as shadows of fall die with a constantly changing light, that sadness can depart when we experience the truth. The truth that the end of loneliness is when someone needs and loves you. It feels so good to be loved.
It was no coincidence that we met that day. Heaven is always thinking about us. Heaven is always watching. And heaven holds the answers to all our earthly questions. It always starts with love.
Heaven is Near
“Did the world begin with your birth?”
“Of course not”
“Right. Not yours. Not mine. Yet we humans make so much of “our” time on earth.
We measure it, we compare it, we put it on our tombstones.”
“We forget that “our” time is linked to others’ time.
We come from One.
We return to One.
That’s how a connected universe makes sense.”
We look to the future with one of two possibilities; what we will give or what we can take. America is a country that not only looks to the future but lives on the earnings from it. On a personal level, it is called a credit card. On a national level, our government adds massive trillions of dollars to our national debt for what we think we need today. I perceive no concern of how our children and grandchildren will pay for our excess.
Meanwhile, we demonize the oil industry. The sun grows the plants. The plants express essential oils. And the oils fire the lamps - giving back the light of other days. Is this not liberated sunshine of years past? Maybe we should be grateful for what we have been given.
Do you think about the inheritance you will leave behind? Will those who receive it be grateful? How can you be sure what is precious to you will be used in a manner that reflects your values?
I look at what we are building together at Evergreen as a legacy to serve our community for generations. It is why I constantly remind us of our values. These are the foundation we build on, intertwined into every part, every person; in the fervent hope these values will not easily be forgotten.
When does the future blend into eternity? Forgive my metaphysical transition.
I don’t know how much you think about time and eternity. We can approach belief from an intellectual path, but in the end, God must be taken on faith. Proofs are for things of this world, things in time and of time, not beyond time.
We conceptualize eternity as a future that never ends. But eternity, by definition is outside time, unbound in any direction - forward, backward, up and down. Time has no more power, just an eternal present which encompasses everything.
Have you felt that? It is a longing for heaven. It is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience, but something our experience is constantly suggesting. Solomon said, “He has made everything beautiful in its time, but He has also set eternity in the heart of man.”
I’ve felt that.
Esther was born about 6 months after we arrived in Roseburg. The name means “star”. She has lived up to that. It was just a few days following her birth when she had a pulmonary arrest at home. I was sitting at a nearby table reading journals while my wife put our two older kids to bed. It was Kathy who sounded the alarm as she rejoined me.
“Is she blue?”
The fluorescent lighting could be deceptive.
I quickly grabbed her from the infant seat, she gasped, and resumed breathing and a pink coloration.
Had I imaged that?
I knew the septic workup that awaited her at the Emergency Department if I presented her with this story.
I sat down on our couch, Esther in my hands, to observe.
It was only a few minutes until the apnea reappeared.
This time there was no doubt.
I began mouth to mouth resuscitation. We calculated we could get Esther to the Emergency Department quicker ourselves rather than calling an ambulance. I wanted no delay or loss of control.
Kathy drove, and I continued to resuscitate, as our 1964 Pontiac headed from Hucrest to Mercy Medical Center. When we reached the BiMart intersection, there was enough light I could see Esther.
She looked like a rubber doll; cold, blue, and utterly limp. She looked dead. I was breathing into a corpse. I glanced upward from my efforts. For a brief moment, that felt an eternity, I saw the constellations. In the mother, I saw also the daughter, up above, bright and beautiful, for all eternity, her timeless light shining upon me. Until one day, I would at last step out of time and join her. In that eternity, I accepted that my baby was not really mine.
The Stewart Parkway roadway was different then. None of the buildings you see now on either side existed. No lights. Only the darkness now. I continued resuscitations with the last horrific image from the lit intersection burning in my brain.
The next set of lights were those of the Emergency Department entrance. Esther had returned. Somewhere along that black road, after I had given my baby to God, He had taken her to her mother star, kissed her, and given her back.
As a Medical Doctor, I can speak of pneumonia and a mucus plug that explains the events of that night. As a father, I will never forget the grace of a daughter twice given.
Heaven is near means something entirely different to me.
"Sir, you know what`s wrong with humanity?”
"The greatest gift we were given is our free will and we keep misusing it”
“You know what`s wrong with nature?" With all its poison plants, predatory animals, earthquakes, and floods?”
"When we envied, when we killed for what we envied, we fell. and when we fell, we broke the whole shebang, nature too.”
"Do you know what`s wrong with cosmic time, as we know it, which steals everything from us?"
"When we fell and broke, we broke nature, too and when we broke nature, we broke time.”
"Once, there were no predators, no prey. Only harmony. There were no quakes, no storms, everything in balance. In the beginning, time was all at once and forever - no past, present, and future, no death. We broke it all.”
"Do you know what sucks the worst about the human condition?"
"What sucks the worst is…this world was a gift to us, and we broke it, and part of the deal is that if we want things right, we have to fix it ourselves. But we can`t. We try, but we can`t”
“We`re broken. And a broken thing can`t fix itself”
Over 2,000 years. Every difficulty we face now was known to man then. The answers just as relevant.
Did you ever wonder why Jesus came to earth in the first place? He explained when he stood before Pilate. “It is for this reason I came to earth. That people would know the truth”
That truth was stunning. Man was made in the image of God. Which meant each soul was precious and eternal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal. They will pass away. But those we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - these souls are immortal; immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. Next to the blessed sacrament itself, our neighbor is the holiest object ever presented to our senses.
Even if you cannot accept his deity, you should not ignore the message. Love is forever the supreme ethic; love first of God and then our neighbor. Love in its highest manifestation is love that is chosen; especially when it is not easy.
None of this denies the brokenness. Compassion from afar falters the closer it attends reality. When we accept imperfection as inevitable, in ourselves and others, we make the love real. And when we make love real, it is possible to allow people and their problems, even those of their own making, become important to us.
From the beginning and throughout the ages, the story has not changed. Desperate men, desperate women, passing through the shadows, looking for the light. Angels watch, voices whispering to souls of previous times, as precious souls chase transient joys that are never what they seem and are soon replenished by disappointment and pain.
Where do you go when your soul is darkened by a fear it cannot speak? When the mind is baffled by rules that are bent and no longer fit the game? Where do you go when your world is broken and you can’t fix it yourself?
The Christmas story says, “start here.’
At the center of the Christmas is the Truth, waiting to be embraced. May you find happiness this Christmas. You need not settle for less.
I want to thank you for indulging me in this privilege of presenting a Christmas letter each year. Thank you for reading it. I share what is important and sacred to me with those who are important to me. You are. This company is.
The dangling conversations above were extracted from a number of books written by Dean Koontz, whose main character was Odd Thomas, Mr. Koontz is a secular fiction writer who has a gift of presenting provocative philosophical conversation within the natural flow of his books.
It is on behalf of the entire Evergreen Board and administration that I wish you the happiest Christmas ever this year. You’re due.
Tim Powell, MD